This past weekend Mark Ruffalo was revealed as the new Bruce Banner and was in the panel featuring the upcoming stars of The Avengers. When I first heard this news, I was disappointed (Mark Ruffalo, really?), especially considering how well Ed Norton played Banner (although I knew that his returning was a long shot). I thought about it some more, however, and realized: it doesn’t really matter.
The Incredible Hulk
Since 2003, Banner will now have been played by three actors: Eric Bana (Hulk, 2003), Ed Norton (The Incredible Hulk, 2008), and now Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers, 2012). If you don’t count any of the voice actors from the various animated series about The Hulk, Bill Bixby is the fourth Bruce Banner from the 1978-1982 The Incredible Hulk TV series. Bixby was perfectly serviceable as Banner then; there was really nothing wrong with Bana’s performance, and Norton was fantastic. Since they were all good as Banner, what then is the major difference? The Hulk himself.
Lou Ferrigno was, of course, The Hulk in the TV series, and frankly he is the quintessential Incredible Hulk, if for no other reason than he actually was The Hulk, unlike Bana or Norton who were replaced with CGI Hulks. What made Bana fail as Banner/The Incredible Hulk was ultimately Ang Lee, who made a simply awful movie. The Incredible Hulk starring Norton was so successful because it didn’t suck in comparison to the film before it, and was in fact, good. It featured some decent acting, but ultimately had good writing and direction and stayed true to the spirit of the comics. Since The Avengers is a Marvel Entertainment product, as was The Incredible Hulk (2008), I really don’t think it matters who plays Banner, and Ruffalo should be fine, because Marvel is paying attention to the script, the directing, and the overall picture (for mass audiences, casual comic book readers and fanboys). What ultimately matters is this latter point, and The Hulk himself. Who really cared about Bill Bixby when there was Lou-freaking-Ferrigno?
Let me illustrate my point by looking at some other comic book characters.
“Who are you? I’m Batman.”
There have been many actors who have donned the Batman suit, but looking at modern movies you have Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and most recently, Christian Bale. Bale has been lauded for the realistic Batman he’s portraying, but once again that has less to do with him, the actor, as it does with the writers and Christopher Nolan, the director. In the comics, “Who Will Wear the Cowl?” was far more of an important question than it has been in the movies. It really could be anyone with some decent acting ability in that suit.
Look at George Clooney compared to Michael Keaton. As Bruce Wayne, Clooney hands down wins in fitting the comic book portrayal of the Bruce Wayne character – rich playboy, handsome, dashing, etc. Michael Keaton? Really? Neither Kim Basinger or Michelle Pfeiffer would have had anything to do with Keaton’s Bruce Wayne. You can see hot journalists or hot messed-up-in-the-head thieves being with George Clooney, not Keaton. However, in restrospect, Keaton’s Batman films were far superior to Kilmer’s or Clooney’s. Why? Because by the time Clooney and Kilmer took over the cowl the films had gone from Tim Burton’s whacked out, but still in touch with the comics, versions to campy “comic” book movies. The Jim Carrey Riddler, the Ahnold Mr. Freeze, and of course, Clooney’s Bat-Nipples, took away from The Batman, which is why Nolan’s new Batman films have been so well recieved – strong writing, strong directing, strong acting (at least from Heath Ledger), and a commitment to creating a film that draws from, and also pays homage to, the darker, grittier, more realistic side of the Batman comics.
Thor and Captain America
It will be interesting to see how Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011) turn out. Thor hasn’t had a film or TV adaptation before, and what has been made of Captain America shouldn’t even be viewed, so there really are no prior cinematic or TV experiences to compare them to (though all Iron Man had was animated series before it, and it turned out fantastic). I’m far more excited (and hopeful) about Captain America, and not only because Ed Brubaker’s contemporary run on the comic book series (2004-present) is one of the best comics I’ve ever read.
Chris Evans may just turn out to be amazing, despite him not necessarily being an obvious choice (and by the way Hugo Weaving as Red Skull is simply brilliant). I could easily see him pulling off Hawkeye in The Avengers (a role that has gone to Jeremy Renner), but perhaps this is what will make Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America amazing. He will have to work at it, and he just might make it his own. That he will be wearing a mask will help, since as Captain America, his face will be partially hidden (just like the CGI Hulk makes whoever the actor is less consequential), and then it comes down to his take on the character and his acting ability to make the part work, especially how he interprets the non-costumed role of Steve Rogers. Someone like Human Target‘s Mark Valley would have been the far more obvious choice to play Steve Rogers (he looks so much like the character from the comics that it is scary), but I now I’m a true believer that Evans acting skills and personality will make his Steve Rogers much more believable and interesting.
Based on the images, Thor could be Marvel’s giant misstep in its film endeavors (that and not getting back the X-Men and Spider-Man film rights from 20th Century Fox and Sony, respectively). What has so far worked for Marvel Entertainment’s films is that they have been very based in modern reality. Updating Iron Man to involve terrorism in Afghanistan was a masterstroke and The Incredible Hulk basically dealt with genetic testing and other contemporary concerns. Likewise, they were based in believable science fiction. Thor, however, deals with fantasy and magic. Plus, the character of Thor, unlike The Hulk and Iron Man hasn’t really seen much screen time (unless you count Adventures in Babysitting (1987), which I hope you don’t. Interesting aside, did you know that was Vincent D’Onofrio playing Dawson/Thor?), and is relatively unknown to mass audiences in his Marvel character state.
I’m hopeful for Kenneth Branagh’s take, but I think the film will be a hard sell, and the images make me think more of Flash Gordon (1980) than other contemporary fantasies that the public have embraced, such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter series, or even Clash of the Titans (2010), which I think would be the best type of fantasy route for Thor to take.
Christopher Reeve is the iconic version of Superman, and for his time the TV version of Superman, played by George Reeves was, as well. Neither quite had the over-the-top physical stature of the comic book hero, but they nailed the humble, everyman nature of Clark Kent and the just, noble, and yes, somewhat campy, superhero. Brandon Routh had virtually the same things going for him when he played the character in Superman Returns (2006), but he didn’t work as Superman, or Clark Kent, because the movie simply wasn’t good. Somehow, Bryan Singer was able to tap into the core of the X-Men history, mythology and character building with X-Men and X2, but with Superman Returns there was something just wrong with the way the character was treated and the story that was presented.
The other TV versions of Superman, Dean Cain’s turn in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993) and Tom Welling in the soon-t0-be ending Smallville (2001-present), are both interesting takes on the character, and ultimately, in their own ways, far superior to Routh’s. I actually think Smallville may have hurt Superman Returns by having two different Clark Kent’s at one time, and I also believe that it would be in DC’s best interest to turn Welling into the new film Superman when the show ends, blending the Smallville universe into the DC film continuity (the same continuity as other upcoming DC films such as Green Lantern (2011), The Flash (speculated), The Justice League (speculated, and would be to DC’s film universe as The Avengers will be to Marvel’s). Welling is likeable and serviceable as Clark Kent/Superman, plus he has brand-recognition with the past 9 years success with the WB/CW show.
Robert Downey, Jr. since he has pretty much become Tony Stark in the hearts and minds of the public. But that is the thing. Robert Downey, Jr. is Tony Stark. Iron Man is just a suit. For comparison, from Iron Man (2008) to Iron Man 2 (2010), the actor playing the character of James “Rhodey” Rhodes was changed from Terrence Howard to Don Cheadle. Howard definitely has more of a military bad-ass look about him in keeping with the portrayal in the comics, compared to Don Cheadle.
But, that really doesn’t matter. When the faceplate snaps down on War Machine, it could be anyone, or no one, in the metal suit. War Machine isn’t any one person. It is the War Machine suit that makes War Machine.
For the mass public, Hugh Jackman is Logan, or Wolverine. The films in which he has portrayed Wolverine have been so successful with mainstream viewers, that it becomes difficult to take him out of the role and replace him with another actor. This is why it is has even been discussed that he may be in X-Men: First Class (2011), and he will, of course be in X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2, whenever that is released. It is also why he was the only saving grace in X-Men: the Last Stand (2006), a film which demonstrates how badly the director and writers can screw up (if only Bryan Singer had stayed on and made it instead of Superman Returns). For the regular public, I think it would be very hard to not have Jackman as Wolverine, even though in many ways he is far from the comic book character. Look at his height, for instance. Hugh Jackman is 6’2″ tall. Logan is around 1′ shorter in the comics. Jackman is Australian; Logan is Canadian. But Jackman still nails Wolverine.
Part of this is the way the movies have handled the character, and Jackman’s simple brilliance at acting the role. One thing the movies have not done is put Wolverine in a mask. Like Christopher Reeve, whose only facial costume was a pair of glasses to disguise himself as Clark Kent, Jackman became the face of the character Logan or Wolverine. He did have a hero costume, but also like Superman’s it had no mask – the black leather of the X-Men trilogy, which was reminiscent of the art direction during Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s run on New X-Men – but he’s never had a mask in the films. In the comics, while he has frequently not worn a costume, his major suits are quite defining as to the character, and they have masks which reveal none of his facial features beyond his frequently scowling mouth. Recently, he’s donned a slick black suit for his wet works operations with X-Force, while his classic Yellow/Blue suit means he’s on X-Men duty, and the Brown/Orange is for personal escapades.
Jackman, however, can be in a white wife beater and still be Wolverine, and it’s not just the hair do (though they did that pretty well). The lack of costumes in the movies, the massive success of the movies, and the regular public’s acceptance of Jackman have fixed him as the main idea of Wolverine. Do a Google Image search for “wolverine” and the images of Jackman are far more prevalent than any from the comics or other art (compare this to a search for “superman” which has far more illustrated and artistic images than those of Christopher Reeve or any of the other film or TV actors).
In conclusion, I think that what it comes down to is this: in the movies it is far more important that the superheroic version of the character (ie, The Hulk not Bruce Banner) is done right, if that character does not look like its human alter-ego (whether because of a transformation or a mask). On the other hand, if the human character (Tony Stark, for instance) is a main focus, then the actor really matters more and their portrayal becomes synonymous with the character. This is especially true for the masses of non-comic book reading people that see the movies only, and do not have prior experience with the stories and characters.
I also believe, that for comic book readers it is almost a non-issue for the actor to change from movie to movie, or reboot to reboot of a film franchise. Comic book readers have the benefit of seeing artists change, and the visual portrayal, which is ultimately vital to the comic book format, of the characters differs based on the artists’ decisions, talents and style of work.
For the comic book reader, it seems that in both the comic book format and the film format, that the writing and directing has a great deal more impact on their reception to the work. While artists may change the way Wolverine’s face looks without the mask, or eventually when Hugh Jackman has aged beyond the ability to play the non-aging Logan and a new actor becomes Wolverine, if the writers, editors and directors of the comics and movies remain true to the story of the character, maintain an honor for what has come before, and produce a quality product, it will be well received.